Sunday, February 22, 2015

Life at the Front: Part I

A little crumpled but intact.
Shortly after I stepped off my Brussels Airlines flight and into the humid Liberian evening, I was handed a small pamphlet, three fold-out pages in length. “Welcome to Liberia!” it said, and without skipping a beat, the next line began, “There is an outbreak of Ebola.” It went on to cover the basics—what the disease is, how you contract it, what the symptoms are.

Just one of the many changes that have come to Liberia since I left. After getting off the shuttle bus—where I received my pamphlet—I was directed to wash my hands at a large fifty-gallon cooler with “EBOLA IS REAL” printed on it. I did so. (Why they would have incoming passengers wash their hands, I'm not sure. Perhaps it is to accustom travelers to the reality of the situation in Liberia—a little practice, maybe?) There was no place to dry my hands, so I patted them on my clothes and hoped it wouldn't bleach them.

It was an encouraging sign of progress, especially since the only public notices I recall when I left in early August was an “EBOLA IS REAL” banner strung across ELWA Junction.

Going in, a woman in scrubs checked my temperature and let me into the airport building. Getting through immigration and customs was thankfully brief, and by my count we had collected all twenty-three of our checked bags in record time. I won't spend long on the reunion that followed outside the airport, but suffice it to say that it was wonderful to see many familiar faces again (including the face of one ornery four-year-old.)

My bowl of joliff rice.  (I went back for seconds.)
We got back to our house and unloaded our luggage, piling them in the living room. (Most of them are still piled there; we're digging through the mountain bit by bit.) I ate (JOLIFF RICE—forgive my enthusiasm), showered, and hit the sack.

I woke up to rain the next morning, which is unusual in the dry season. But for an American readjusting to the hot and humid climate, it was a beautiful thing—I even had to pull on a sheet halfway through the night.

Going out that afternoon revealed even more changes. ELWA Hospital had been restructured in some ways, with new fences and tarps. The ELWA 2 unit was no longer hidden behind sheet metal; there was an entrance cut from the zinc with a banner hung to the left. (It read, “Welcome to ELWA-II Ebola Treatment Unit”, alternating between sinister block letters—“Ebola”—and a curvy “Welcome” to a place no one wanted to be welcomed to.) You can see it pictured below.

We went past it and out the middle entrance to the ELWA Campus, right beside MSF's ETU. For those of you who don't speak Acronymic, it was Medecins sans Frontieres—“Doctors Without Borders”—and their Ebola Treatment Unit. MSF has been doing much of the Ebola response since the outbreak began.

The MSF sign outside the ELWA Campus
A glimpse of ELWA-3, the world's biggest Ebola unit, through an orange fence.
While driving, we went past the Chinese ETU, which was up before any of the American units. (I'm not sure where the American units are, but I didn't see any American presence—there were Ebola response vehicles, but those were often UN or Liberian.)

One of our errands was to go up to the supermarket. We visited the Exclusive first, and had our temperatures taken and washed our hands with bleach water before going in. Handshakes, where they happened, were replaced with first-bumps and elbow-knocks. Still, we saw many familiar faces, and the store looked the same as always.

A sign at Rehab Junction, warning Liberians that Ebola is still on the prowl.
Yes, much of Liberia was the same as it was six months ago. There were some aesthetic things that changed, but everyone was out and about, buying and selling in the market, honking wildly, waving for taxis, manning their commercial stands on the side of the road. (That's a big phrase for a plywood shack and wares, but it works.)

However, everywhere we went, we saw many different signs of Ebola. (No, literally, look below: it's a sign of Ebola about signs of Ebola.) Billboards, banners, and even logos on cars.

One of the half-dozen signs posted about Ebola at ELWA Junction
An Ebola Task Force vehicle,
one of several Ebola-related vehicles I saw
while we were out.
I mean, an outsider might just take this in stride. Ebola was serious, people are working on getting it contained. Cool.

Except, save for that aforementioned banner over ELWA Junction, these are the first outward signs I've seen of the outbreak in Liberia, and I left in August—months after the outbreak began, and in the middle of the horrifying exponential growth that gripped the country for several months afterward.

Bike tires for sale near Rehab Junction
Now do you see it? To go from a solitary banner during a week in which there were fifty cases of Ebola to billboards and preventions everywhere is a solid indication of the progress that has been made. The huge drop in cases seen at the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 was not without reason. A massive campaign was launched to make sure the average Liberian knew Ebola was real, and even indoctrination can be good. In this case, the same things were repeated so often that they actually took root—Ebola is real, Ebola is dangerous, wash your hands and don't touch sick people.

I'm withholding full commentary, considering I've only been here a couple days. There are obviously exceptions. Dad went in to an electronics place yesterday afternoon without washing his hands, and then lectured the security officer afterward for neglecting to make him do so. (The security protested that he didn't think of it and didn't want to bother him.) Still, what I've seen so far is encouraging.

Moving on, there are other, subtler changes to Liberia. For instance, bicycles have made huge gains in the past several years. Today I spotted someone selling bike tires—common enough for regular tires, but it shows how prevalent bikes have become in Liberia. Also, just in case you don't know what gum is actually called, here's a sign correcting you:

What can I say?  It's good to be back. I'm only here for three and a half months, but it's going to be an awesome three and a half months.

I could say some rubbish about how our garden represents our lives—our banana/plantain trees are beginning to produce and our papaya tree is big-o—but that analogy would break down when it comes to the mess of weeds and abandoned plants we have beside the house. Suffice it to say that we're really moving forward and everyone feels renewed and chomping at the bit. 

Till next time! 


About this series of posts: “Life at the Front” isn't sure what it's supposed to be, so it settled for part Ebola commentary and part missionary life. Definitely a mix of styles. And it's also really sporadic, so sorry about that.

I'll be continuing this whenever possible, covering both the developments in my personal life and whatever news comes my way concerning the current Ebola outbreak. Including taking iPhone pictures of signs I've never seen before. (Guilty as charged.) My sisters tell me I look like a tourist. (Certainly not guilty as charged.)

But, I've got this notion in my mind that I'm writing down things that people are interested in. So I can afford looking slightly idiotic as I brandish my smart phone and fake a wide-eyed tourist look.

Happy reading.

Speaking of faking a wide-eyed tourist look...